Take in the sights in downtown Las Vegas in a Keolis self-driving shuttle

AAA and Keolis self-driving shuttle in Las Vegas

Self-driving cars may not be able to take over the roads, but you can still ride in autonomous vehicles today. AAA and transportation management company Keolis are teaming up to operate a self-driving shuttle in Las Vegas. The goal is to see how autonomous vehicles interact with their environment, and how passengers respond to them.

Keolis launched a limited autonomous shuttle service in downtown Las Vegas earlier this year, but AAA claims the expanded version it’s backing is more ambitious. Over the course of the yearlong program, AAA expects to carry a quarter million passengers on the autonomous shuttle, which will operate on public streets in Las Vegas’ downtown Innovation District.

The shuttle vehicle itself is built by Navya, and resembles a shrunken bus. The all-electric vehicle can seat eight people, who will wear seatbelts as if they are riding in a car. In addition to the usually array of sensors (lidar, cameras, GPS), the shuttle can interface with “smart city” infrastructure, which AAA claims is a first in the United States. That means the shuttle will be able to to communicate with traffic signals in an effort to improve traffic flow.

The shuttle covers a 0.6-mile loop, with stops on Fremont Street and Carson Street, between Las Vegas Boulevard and Eighth Street. Rides are free, and AAA will survey passengers about their experience. The group wants to see if experiencing an autonomous vehicle firsthand will change people’s perceptions of the technology for the better. AAA also wants to study how other road users — particularly cyclists and pedestrians — respond to having an autonomous vehicle in their midst.

AAA and Keolis chose Las Vegas for the test due to the city’s high volume of visitors, a sunny dry climate that won’t present challenging weather conditions, and Nevada’s tolerant attitude toward self-driving cars. The Silver State is one of a handful of states that has explicitly legalized the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads, which the lawyers of the companies doing the testing surely appreciate.

Most autonomous-vehicle tests focus on the technology itself. Vehicles are driven up and down public roads so engineers can get more data to refine software, or discover bugs in sensors and other hardware. But AAA and Keolis’ Las Vegas shuttle pilot looks at the bigger picture. Because for autonomous vehicles to work, people will have to tolerate riding with them, and sharing the road with them.